Net may reveal
who owns politicians
who owns politicians
by Byte Marks
Kim Alexander has a dream: one day, voters across the nation will be able to find out who owns their politicians with a few keystrokes.
Alexander heads the California Voter Foundation (CVF), a nonprofit organization in Sacramento dedicated to promoting the cause of online campaign-finance disclosure. The group's efforts have won widespread media attention, including brief mention in the May issue of Wired magazine. And last year, their Late Contribution Watch (a project in which last-minute California campaign contributions—typically made by those who want the donation to go unnoticed—were posted online daily and e-mailed to hundreds of journalists across the state) earned them the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
The CVF Web site (www.calvoter. org/cvf) contains more information than you can comfortably digest about online disclosure. Alexander firmly believes that posting campaign-finance information online makes it much easier for journalists, voters and other interested parties to discover who's buying candidates' cooperation—which, in turn, makes it much harder for politicians' dirty deeds to slip through the cracks.
“Politicians are just like the rest of us,” she said. “If everyone's ignoring them, then they're not going to be as self-conscious about how they're performing. If we pay attention to what they're doing, they pay more attention to what they're doing.”
In 1995, the CVF put together an online voter guide for the San Francisco elections; it remains on their Web site as a model for the kind of guides they hope to someday see across the country and around the world. I popped on and did a quick search through Willie Brown's campaign donors; by organizing it by city, I got a complete list of how much money he received from Orange County contributors, including the Irvine Co., Howard Adler and a slew of waste-management companies in Irvine. Before the Internet, I would have had to fly to Sacramento and sift through several cubic feet of files to find the same information.
In conversation, Alexander comes across as polished, articulate and eminently practical. Unlike many fellow technophiles, she sees the Internet as simply a useful tool rather than a universal anodyne. She came to the CVF three years ago from California Common Cause, where she researched campaign financing and helped lobby for reform. We spoke last week about her hopes for online disclosure in light of two pending bills in the state legislature to mandate electronic filing of campaign-finance data by candidates.
OC Weekly: What is the purpose of requiring candidates to file electronic disclosure documents?
Kim Alexander: One of the things that technology can now do is provide the public with immediate, accurate, searchable, convenient, online access to campaign-finance data, which we couldn't have before the Internet existed. And that would help voters make more informed choices because they'd be able to see who is backing a candidate. There's no stronger way in our capitalist democracy to express how you feel about a candidate than to put your money behind them, and it's important for voters to be able to see who else is supporting the people they're being asked to vote for. Then, of course, after the election, it's an important tool the public and the media can use to hold politicians accountable for the money they took and make sure they're not beholden to their contributors' interests.
How does that differ from the current disclosure system?
If you really want to get a clear picture of what's happening in California campaign financing, you need to come to Sacramento and visit the secretary of state's office. The staff there does the best job they can with making the public records available on paper, but it's a very limited medium. The files are often not complete because they're handled by so many people. And some of these records—on the California Democratic Party, the Republican Party—if you stacked up their records from one election cycle, they might stand 2 or 3 feet high. I'm not exaggerating; the volume is astounding. We have a $300 million campaign-finance system here in California, and all of that information is being disclosed on paper.
How does online disclosure help the cause of campaign-finance reform?
I think shining a light on expenditures is going to change the way people spend money on campaigns because frankly, no one is looking at that data. And the fact that people aren't looking at it has caused a lot of abuse in the system, and that's really what disclosure is about. There's a theory in science that says a watched object will change its behavior just because it's being watched, and that applies to human nature as well: If we start paying closer attention to what politicians are reporting on their statements of economic interest and disclosure reports, guess what? Their behavior may change.
Tell me about your Late Contribution Watch project.
We sent a team of researchers with laptops over to the secretary of state's office every day during the late contribution reporting period, which is the last 12 days of the election. And they keyed into the laptops every contribution of $10,000 or more and brought the data back to our office; we cleaned it up and put it up on our online voter guide every day by 5 o'clock.
Right after we started the project, one researcher saw expenditures from Pete Wilson in legislative races all over the state that totaled more than $700,000. They waited until the late-reporting period started before they made those contributions because they didn't want people to know what their strategy was. The fact is that's the way people who work in our electoral system do it, unfortunately. And it's not just the Republicans—everybody does it. They are not shy about trying to deceive voters, and I think that's shameful and something we can change. Electronic filing is the best way to avoid that type of manipulation during elections—and a lot of others that people have no idea about.
How useful is this information you're putting up online for individual voters, given that you usually need journalists or activists to provide some context for the raw data?
The real audience for this data, as I see it, is not necessarily the general public, although some people will come and look at it. It's the reporters who tell the stories about what's happening. And my interest in making this data more accessible is really out of a concern that journalists aren't able to do the job many of them would like to do in helping people understand the influence of money in politics.
Part of the reason I left Common Cause is because I felt those groups have an interest in telling people how bad the system is because they need to be able to justify fixing it in the way they're choosing to, and it's really become a dangerous cycle. That's one of the reasons I like to put the data up in raw form, so that it's not left to interest groups to interpret what it means for reporters—reporters will be able to do it for themselves. In addition, an interested citizen who maybe can't get a reporter interested in figuring out why there's a freeway being built near his house or whatever will have a way to research that himself without having to travel to Sacramento to look up that person's major donors.
What's the current status of electronic-filing legislation in California?
There are two bills that are in the legislature. One is AB 63, by Jim Cunneen (R-Cupertino), and the other is SB 49 by Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach). We should expect to see floor votes in both houses of the legislature in early June on these bills, so people who are interested in this issue should be contacting their legislators and sharing their concerns with them about the legislation. Anyone who's interested can go to our Web site and find out more than they want to know about this.
Is online disclosure an issue in other states as well?
This is a national movement. In the past couple of days, I have spoken to people from Florida, Ohio, Hawaii—states all over the country are moving toward online disclosure. That's another great thing about the Internet: it provides a way for all of us who are working who are working on online disclosure to overcome the hurdles that have kept people from working together in the past. I recently had someone from Korea join an e-mail discussion list on electronic filing. It's very exciting.
Disclose your finances to Wyn at email@example.com. And check up on the Weekly at our Web site: http://www.ocweekly.com
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